Just when it seems like there’s nothing left for Michael Phelps to accomplish, he goes and pops a mini-miracle.
That’s what the final lap of his victory in the 200-meter individual medley looked like Thursday night, as the 31-year-old left the impression that it’s possible his swimming talents know no ceiling.
Yes, there’s plenty of new math to add to his Olympic legacy. He became the first swimmer to capture the same event in four consecutive Olympics, and his fourth gold at the Rio Games pushed his career totals to 22 golds and 26 medals.
He also accomplished one other feat. Regardless of what happens in the remaining 10 days in Rio, Phelps is the unmatched star of these Games. That’s how good he has been while rewriting the record book on a near-daily basis.
No matter how high Simone Biles flies at gymnastics, no matter how much Usain Bolt resembles a comet in track’s 100 meters, Phelps will leave Brazil as the enduring face of these Games.
It was the way Phelps finished that anyone who watched had to marvel at. He broke free from the pack in the third, breaststroke, leg, then exploded home in the freestyle, and no one needed a replay or a photo finish to know who had won.
According to the clock, his margin of victory was an astounding 1.95 seconds. But for the naked eye it seemed more like a mile.
And this was supposed to be a close race. Also a race that tugged on heartstrings, as Phelps lined up against his good friend and longest-standing rival, Ryan Lochte.
It was supposed to be a scintillating final showdown between two swimmers who have traded supremacy in the 200 IM back and forth for 12 years, but with Phelps always winning at the Olympics.
It also loomed as the last meeting between U.S. swimming’s two most decorated men of all time. But Lochte looked his 32 years while finishing fifth and getting obliterated by nearly three seconds as Phelps swam like he was wearing a jet pack.
Silver medalist Kosuke Hagino of Japan also posed as formidable a threat as Phelps has seen in Rio. Hagino had already pocketed gold in the 400 IM, and he owned the world’s fastest time this year in the 200 IM. Only 21 years old, Hagino also figured to have the fresher physique.
And after letting loose with a little pre-race trash talk directed at Phelps, Hagino showed he had the fresher mouth.
"It doesn't matter a bit if he's on a roll," Hagino told AFP (via SuperSport). "That doesn't affect what I need to do. It's no problem at all. I can't wait to race him."
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If Phelps was aware of Hagino’s chatter, it didn’t show. NBC’s peeks at Phelps before the race, in the waiting area, didn’t catch him invoking his so-called "death stare." That’s the glaring look Phelps directed at bitter rival Chad le Clos on Monday night as the South African appeared to try to rattle Phelps with a shadow-boxing show in the waiting room.
Maybe Phelps sensed how badly Hagino was about to be beaten and didn’t consider him worthy of the stare.
That look is what should be the enduring image of Phelps in Rio. Phelps looks like someone who’s contemplating a felonious act, and maybe that makes sense considering how much gold he’s swiped at the Olympics.
For good measure on Thursday, he was back in the pool barely 30 minutes after the 200 IM victory to swim in a 100 butterfly semifinal and advance.
So, yes, there’s no doubt more to come as Phelps zeroes in on his final two events.
Phelps swims the 100 butterfly on Friday, where he’ll have another chance to win a fourth consecutive gold medal in the same event. That would give him repeats of an historical accomplishment no one else has managed even once.
And on Saturday, he’ll swim a leg on the 4x100 medley relay.
I have no idea what Phelps will pull from his bag of tricks next, but I’m guessing it will be as riveting and breathtaking as Thursday’s lightning finish. That’s just the way it works for the man who’s owned the Rio Olympics.
Tom Weir covered 15 Olympics (eight Winter, seven Summer) as a columnist for USA Today.